Founding of Princeton, The,

Founding of Princeton, The, like that of Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth, was one of the consequences of The Great Awakening, the series of religious revivals that swept the English colonies in America in the eighteenth century. The Great Awakening had other important social and political consequences, too. It brought an upsurge in missionary activities among the Indians and the first important movement against slavery. Of special importance for Princeton, it increased opposition to the Anglican Church and the royal officials who supported it, and created a democratic spirit in religion that was allied to the insistence on political home rule that eventually brought independence from Britain.

The Great Awakening is said to have begun in New Jersey about 1720 with revival meetings in the Raritan Valley led by a Dutch Reformed pastor, Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, who emphasized the religion of the heart over doctrine and liturgy. It was carried on throughout the Middle Colonies under the leadership of zealous evangelical graduates of the Log College, founded in Pennsylvania about 1726 by Presbyterian William Tennent. In New England the movement was led by the stirring preaching of Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards at Northampton, Massachusetts. These and other revivalistic activities were stimulated in the years 1739 to 1741 by the tours of the English evangelist, George Whitefield. The activities spread with the preaching of Presbyterian Samuel Davies in Virginia and with later efforts of Baptists and Methodists in other parts of the South.*

In New England, where the movement was shorter-lived than elsewhere, the emotional, and sometimes fanatical, excesses of some of the followers of the revivalists left a bitter division in the churches between the ``New Lights'' and the ``Old Lights.'' In the Middle Colonies a similar division between the ``New Sides'' and the ``Old Sides'' caused a split in the Presbyterian Church from 1741 to 1758 known as the Great Schism.


The four originators of the College were members of the moderate wing of the New Sides. Three of them were graduates of Yale: Jonathan Dickinson, pastor at Elizabethtown; Aaron Burr, pastor at Newark; John Pierson, pastor at Woodbridge. The fourth, Ebenezer Pemberton, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in New York, was a graduate of Harvard. They believed in revivalism and welcomed George Whitefield to their pulpits, but they disapproved of the more contentious and intrusive methods of the New Sides graduates of William Tennent's Log College. Nevertheless, being ex-Congregationalists, they defended the rights of the Tennent men in their disputes with the Old Sides group that dominated the Synod of Philadelphia. After this synod expelled the Presbytery of New Brunswick in 1741 for defying a regulation that Log College graduates should not be ordained without an examination by a committee of the synod, Dickinson, Burr, and the others tried in vain to effect a conciliation. They then withdrew from the Synod of Philadelphia and joined with the Presbytery of New Brunswick to form the new Synod of New York in 1745.

Disappointed by Yale and Harvard's opposition to the Great Awakening and not satisfied with the limited course of instruction given at the Log College, they devised a plan for the establishment of a new college. The four ministers persuaded three leading lay Presbyterians in New York to join them. These three, also graduates of Yale were: William Smith, lawyer; Peter Van Brugh Livingston, merchant; and William Peartree Smith, a young man of independent means who was a generous supporter of the church and ``an ardent patriot.'' Since there was at that time no college in existence between New Haven in Connecticut and Williamsburg in Virginia -- a long distance to cover by horseback or stagecoach -- the need for an institution of higher education in the Middle Colonies, they felt, was urgent.

Late in 1745 or early in 1746 these seven men applied for a charter to Governor Lewis Morris, an Anglican, who refused their petition because, he said, his instructions inhibited him from granting such a charter to a group of dissenters. Following Morris's death, they applied anew to Acting Governor John Hamilton. Although also an Anglican, Hamilton was more liberal in his views than Morris and with the consent of his Council, on which there were a number of friends of the proposed College, he granted a charter on October 22, 1746. The Anglican clergy later complained that it was done ``so suddenly and privately'' that they ``had no opportunity to enter a caveat against it.''

A century and a half later the Anglican Acting Governor received this tribute from a latter-day Presbyterian, John DeWitt 1861, in a history of the College that he wrote for the Sesquicentennial Celebration:

``The name of John Hamilton should be given a conspicuous place in any list of the founders of Princeton University. He granted the first charter; he granted it against the precedent made by the governor whom he succeeded in the executive chair; and he granted it with alacrity. . . . What is more remarkable, at a time when Episcopalian governors were ill-disposed to grant to Presbyterians ecclesiastical or educational franchises, he~ -- an Episcopalian -- gave this charter to a board of trust composed wholly of members of the Presbyterian Church.''

However, the college thus founded was not, as has sometimes been said, established under the auspices of the Synod of New York. The seven persons who, in the words of their leader Jonathan Dickinson, ``first concocted the plan and foundation of the College'' were leading members of that body, but they acted independently as (the charter said) ``well disposed & publick spirited Persons.'' The new institution, therefore, was not to be a synodical seminary of the kind that had been planned earlier by the Synod of Philadelphia, but a college of liberal arts and sciences. ``Though our great Intention was to erect a seminary for educating Ministers of the Gospel,'' one of the founders+ later wrote in a letter to another clergyman, ``yet we hope it will be useful in other learned professions -- Ornaments of the State as Well as the Church. Therefore we propose to make the plan of Education as extensive as our Circumstances will admit.'' The College, furthermore, was not to be solely for Presbyterians: ``The most effectual Care is taken in our Charter to secure the Rights of Conscience,'' the Trustee wrote in this same letter. ``Persons of all persuasions are to have free access to the Honours & Privileges of the College, while they behave themselves with Sobriety and Virtue.''

Five months or more after they obtained the charter, the seven original trustees chose for the remaining places they were empowered to fill five ardent New Siders: Samuel Blair, Samuel Finley, Gilbert Tennent, William Tennent, Jr., and Richard Treat, all graduates of the Log College except Treat, who was one of its close adherents. On April 27, 1747, the trustees announced the election of Jonathan Dickinson as president, and the College opened in his Elizabethtown parsonage during the last week of May. On President Dickinson's death the following October, the College moved to the Newark parsonage of Aaron Burr, who was elected the second president.


When the first charter was attacked -- the Anglicans contended that Hamilton was superannuated when he granted it and threatened to test its validity in court -- the next governor, Jonathan Belcher, a graduate of Harvard and a Congregationalist, issued a second one on September 14, 1748. It left intact the essential features of the first charter, but developed further the founders' concern for ``State as well as Church'' by making the governor of New Jersey ex-officio a trustee and including among those appointed to an enlarged board of twenty-three trustees, four members of the Provincial Council and other prominent laymen, two of whom were members of the Society of Friends, two of the Episcopal Church, and one of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Belcher's efforts on behalf of the College tended to eclipse the work of the earlier founders. Although he himself referred to the College as his ``adopted daughter,'' the trustees, in proposing to name the first college building in Princeton for him, said they viewed him as the College's ``founder, patron, and benefactor.'' An Account of the College, published by the trustees in 1764, even begins with the granting of the charter by Governor Belcher and the opening of the College in Newark under ``Mr. President Burr, the first who officiated in that station.''

Later historians -- President Maclean, Professors Collins and Wertenbaker -- have, with ample documentation, restored the earlier phases of Princeton's founding, President Maclean giving us this balanced view of Belcher's role:

``The Governor was not, properly speaking, the founder of the College, in the sense of being its originator, for the College was in existence, and in active operation, before his arrival. He was not, therefore, to use a phrase of Lord Coke's, its Fundator Incipiens, although, in view of what he did towards the building up of the institution, he may be regarded as its Fundator Perficiens.

*Frelinghuysen received an honorary degree from Princeton in 1749, Davies in 1753, Whitefield in 1754. Two of William Tennent's sons became Trustees of the College; Edwards, its third president; Davies, its fourth.

+The letter, when given to the University in 1905, lacked the last page(s). Internal evidence suggests that it was written between 1748 and 1750, probably by Ebenezer Pemberton.

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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